The outlook for Florida turned suddenly dire as Hurricane Michael formed off the coast of Cuba early Monday carrying predictions of a major Category 3 landfall in the Florida Panhandle.
Standing inside the Pasco County Emergency Operations Center, Gov. Rick Scott called it potentially "the most destructive storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in decades."
"Hurricane Michael is a massive storm that could bring total devastation to parts of our state, especially the Panhandle," Scott said. "There’s no excuse, you’ve got to keep your families safe."
Forecasters expect the storm to pass well west of Tampa Bay but carry the potential for 2 to 4 feet of storm surge — similar to the amount brought in by Hurricane Irma last year. Further north, the forecast calls for 8 to 12 feet of surge in the Big Bend area, along with catastrophic winds above 110 mph, where it is expected to make landfall late Wednesday.
Wes Maul, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, said officials are preparing like Hurricane Michael could reach Category 4 status before making landfall. It is expected to intensify as it passes over the warm Gulf of Mexico on its approach to the Panhandle.
The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning from the Alabama-Florida border to the Suwannee River. A Tropical Storm Watch covered the area from the Chassahowitzka River to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay.
A storm surge warning was in effect from Okaloosa/Walton county line to the Anclote River on the Pasco/Pinellas county line, according to the Weather Service, while most of Tampa Bay remained under a storm surge watch.
The governor declared a state of emergency, which included Tampa Bay, and he said he asked President Donald Trump to declare a pre-landfall disaster to free up federal resources. Scott additionally activated 1,250 National Guardsmen and said he would waive tolls for residents heeding evacuation orders.
As of 8 p.m. Monday, the National Hurricane Center reported, Hurricane Michael had maximum sustained winds of 85 mph and was about 60 miles northwest of Cuba. It had come together rapidly over the previous 24 hours, forecasters said, emerging from Central America instead of blowing a long course across the Atlantic Ocean.
"Yesterday at this time it was still a tropical depression, and now it’s a hurricane," Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University, said late Monday morning. "And they’re forecasting a major hurricane by this time tomorrow."
The storm was moving north about 12 mph, according to the Hurricane Center.
Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, said water temperatures along its potential path were 84 to 86 degrees, providing ample energy for Hurricane Michael to strengthen. The forecast track is fairly set, he said.
"It’s going to be the Florida Panhandle," Masters said. "The models are in pretty good agreement."
Masters compared Hurricane Michael’s course to Hurricane Dennis, a Category 3 storm that hit near the Florida-Alabama border in 2005. It caused 42 deaths, according to Weather Underground, and caused more than $2.5 billion in damage.
Insurance companies Monday began to brace for the storm, bringing a pause to the writing of new homeowners insurance policies until the warning is lifted, as is standard before natural disasters. The Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, an industry group in the state, recommended that homeowners review their policies and write down any significant phone numbers in case power is out after landfall.
"If a storm damages your home, call your insurance agent or company first," said Samantha Sexton, vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Federation. "Do not fall prey to some of the shady vendors who knock on doors promising free roofs or other quick repairs."
Florida State University and Leon County schools plan to close Tuesday through Friday, and the Citrus County School District announced school would be closed Tuesday.
Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, planned to evacuate its fleet of F-22 Raptor fighter jets and T-38 Talon trainers, said base spokesman Don Arias.
Officials at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, said they were also monitoring the storm but have not changed anything with base operations. Leaders around Tampa Bay were keeping any eye on forecasts for Hurricane Michael but hoping to be spared.
"The majority of impacts on our area will be Tuesday night and Wednesday," said Paul Close, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Ruskin. "The potentially worst impact will be the storm surge."
Times staff writers Josh Solomon, Suhauna Hussain, Howard Altman, Malena Carollo, Emily L. Mahoney, Carl Lisciandrello, Devin Rodriguez and Langston Taylor contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.